Last Saturday was most probably our last day of shooting, but certainly not the least! We organized a blind tasting at Terroir in San Francisco. We thought it would be an interesting framework to talk about natural wine and figure out if it is possible to detect where a wine actually comes from. Indeed, if the goal of natural winemakers is to make a wine of terroir, one could expect drinkers (at least the wine experts) to be capable of recognizing the terroir or the location of a wine with only their nose and palate.
So we gathered 5 wine experts at the table:
- Ian Becker, Arlequin’s wine director
- Hank Beckmeyer, winemaker at La Clarine Farm
- Chris Deegan, Nopa’s wine director
- Dagan Ministero, one of Terroir’s founders
- Angela Osborne, winemaker at A Tribute to Grace Wine Co.
We wrapped the following 6 bottles in brown bags. All natural wine from California:
- Chardonnay, BroadSide, 2009
- Carte blanche, Clos Saron, 2009
- Rocks And Gravel, Dry Creek Valley, Edmunds St. John, 2009
- Wylie Syrah, El Dorado County, Edmunds St. John, 2009
- Les Enfants Terribles, Zinfandel, Dashe, 2009
- Syrah “Sumu Kaw vineyard”, La Clarine, 2009
Blind tasting results
The experts often agreed on the characteristics of the wine, e.g. the minerality, the presence (or lack) of oak, the presence of fruit, the level of alcohol. But only sometimes could they correctly identify the grape/s or the type of climate where the grapes were grown. And never could they identify the specific California terroir.
On one hand — getting down to specifics — Ian somewhat assertively picked the Chardonnay in the first wine. Angela picked the predominance of Syrah in the third one. And Dagan easily picked the carbonic maceration by the smell and mouth feel in the fifth one. So they had a few things right.
On the other hand, a few people were thinking about a blend of Rhone varietals for the second wine despite a good amount of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Most were clueless. In the fourth wine a few people could pick up the variety. And nobody even mentioned zinfandel (which was admittedly atypical) for the fifth one. Our wine selection had them stumped.
Showing terroir versus guessing terroir
There was no discernable embarrassment on the part of our wine experts though. An important point was made by both Chris Deegan and Ian Becker when they distinguished between the capacity to guess where a wine comes from versus the idea that a wine shows terroir. Indeed, the California wine world is so new, large and diversified that it is nearly impossible to guess the correct location for a wine. However, this is not to say that natural wine cannot express terroir.
Chris Deegan explained that in Burgundy, people have been making wines the same way for a very long time, with only 2 different grapes, on a relatively small area. Hence, it is certainly much more feasible to pick the correct location for a wine in Burgundy than it is in California.
Putting things into context, Dagan Ministero commented that the concept of American terroir is like writing a graduate thesis based on other people’s work which is more prominent than yours. He thought California winemakers were lucky to have the possibility to tap into a long-established knowledge base.
That idea was supported by Ian Becker and Hank Beckmeyer, stressing that the American wine world is really new when you compare it with the wine world in Europe. California is still experimenting and learning from the European masters.
Hank Beckmeyer also highlighted — pleasantly realizing — that the notion of American terroir today meant that we could sit together around the table and have fun guessing a flight of wines of terroir from California. In other words, some California wines were expressive enough of their terroir to make it imaginable to have such a blind tasting event.
And indeed, we as moderators had a lot of fun, and it was easy to tell that the wine experts had fun as well. Moreover, we are confident that some of the footage from this blind tasting will make it into our final documentary.
On a more technical note, since Matt and I knew we would be acting as moderators during the discussion, we hired a crew to help us with lighting and cameras (Brent Bishop, Pete Horner), as well as sound (Darcel Walker). Special kudos to Brent Bishop who has been incredibly helpful in terms of sharing advice, competence and reliability.
Long day, but a worthwhile one. Thanks to all!